The National Symphony Orchestra hasn’t been completely out of earshot since the start of the pandemic, performing in limited arrangements and ensembles for dozens of online and outdoor engagements, but this past weekend’s opening gala marked the first time that maestro Gianandrea Noseda, the NSO and the audience all reunited in one room in full force — minus the mediation of laptop screens, plexiglass dividers and empty rows.
Instead, Noseda and company met the enthusiasm of the crowd with a show of force — and a showcase of talent — countering a sea of black-and-white tuxedos (along with some gowns worthy of their own dispatch) with a program of grand orchestral color.
Two points of order: The vaccination verification situation I encountered at Lang Lang’s Sept. 18 performance, which downgraded into the best-dressed traffic jam that I’ve ever been stuck in, seems to have been resolved with impossible-to-miss checkpoints and a significant boost of staff.
Also, let it be known that the opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by a standing orchestra to a standing crowd seemed like a corrective of a rendition last heard in this context two years ago. It was buoyant and brisk, the unofficial chorus of the audience singing hard through their nicest masks.
The program opened with “The Block,” a 2018 piece by the NSO’s new composer-in-residence, Carlos Simon — a response to the works of 20th-century Harlem painter Romare Howard Bearden, whose bold, multitextured streetscapes emerge as a vibrant bustle of sound in Simon’s music. An early shimmer of strings evokes the sun inching over the rooftops; swelling horns surge and fade like passing cars, and around each corner is a new commotion or a welcome calm. It’s a gripping, vividly realized homage that builds to a dazzling climax. (Keep your ears open this year for a lot more from Simon.)
Noseda kept his remarks to a minimum — “We’ll talk later,” he said — before leaping into Alberto Ginastera’s “Four Dances.”
In the early stages of Ginastera’s career, before the lure of 12-tone serialism coaxed the Argentine composer into a less, how shall I put this, emotionally available idiom, he indulged in the sound and spirit of the folklore and indigenous music of his home country. This soft spot for the rhythms of traditional ballads and dances (such as the competitive malambo) are especially apparent in the composer’s first two ballets, 1937’s “Panambí” (Op. 1) and 1941’s “Estancia,” from which the evening’s selection was taken.
The “Four Dances” — each efficient but rapturous in their own ways — are at their best when most kinetic; Noseda was able to harness that energy and propel it forward in the suite’s bookending movements. In between, the undulating colors of the soft, sensuous second movement — “Danza del Trigo” (“The Wheat Dance”) — were deftly threaded together by Aaron Goldman’s flute and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. And the bombastic interlude of the third movement — “Los Peones de Hacienda” (“The Cattlemen”) — was another reminder of why Jauvon Gilliam on timpani continues to be one of my favorite contributors to this increasingly powerful orchestra.
Noseda prefaced the final piece of the evening with a deep breath and a long look around the hall, saying: “You cannot imagine how much I have missed the NSO, its musicians and you, the beloved audience.” He also pointed out the absence of any big-name guests on the program. “The stars,” he said, gesturing toward the orchestra, “are them.”
The opener’s closer was “Shéhérazade,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite, composed to evoke (in brilliant but broad strokes) “One Thousand and One Nights.” Not only is it one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most generous compositions when it comes to sheer melodic beauty and variety, but it’s also delightfully meta: a story about stories, and how the right stories can change who we are. (Or, in the case of Shéhérazade, indefinitely postpone our presumed beheadings.)
It’s always struck me as unfortunate that the opening bars of “Shéhérazade” — the objectively threatening recurring theme of the cruel sultan — have been so firmly typecast in pop culture as a means to introduce cartoon villains and figure skaters.
Bar-Josef once again shined, attacking the theme of the future queen with intensity and grace — especially its more saw-toothed reemergence in the final movement. Goldman’s nimble and crystalline flute, Sue Heineman’s silken bassoon work, David Hardy’s cello (both trenchant and tender in the third), Lin Ma’s lithe clarinet figures, Nicholas Stovall’s lucid oboe lines and Adriana Horne’s perfectly phrased harp were among many individual highlights of a work that truly spreads the musical wealth to every end of the orchestra.
In the final movement — “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks upon a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.” — Rimsky-Korsakov reunites all of the themes in a raucous collision. Noseda threw himself into it, his arms treading, he legs tensing into a bounce, his body caught in the surge of the music.
And in its final minutes, a reassuring metaphor of sorts in our safe return to dry land after such a maelstrom — safe harbor and the calm that comes with conclusion. What a ride we’ve all been on, and what a feeling to be back where we belong. It’s a story I could listen to a thousand times.